Tar Heel of the Week

He seeks therapeutic help, not just medication, for children

CorrespondentAugust 26, 2013 

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Don Rosenblitt envIsioned a place where troubled children could get therapy and learn at the same time when no such place existed. The Lucy Daniels Center started off with therapy, then turned into a preschool. This year, it accepts its first K-2 students. Rosenblitt is its current and founding director.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Donald L. Rosenblitt

    Born: April 29, 1948, Queens, N.Y.

    Residence: Durham.

    Career: Co-founder and director, The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood.

    Awards: John Rex Endowment Hands of Health Award, 2005.

    Education: Bachelor’s in philosophy, Princeton University; M.D., Duke University.

    Affiliations: Advisory panel, Quality Day Care Programs Initiative, The Duke Endowment; Young Child Mental Health Initiative, Raleigh; board of directors, John Rex Endowment.

    Family: Wife, Daphne; daughters Alison and Emily; expecting his first grandchild.

    Fun Fact: Rosenblitt has a variety of hobbies. He enjoys swimming, opera, growing bromeliads and baking bread – and he’s currently learning Italian.

— For more than 20 years, the Lucy Daniels Center has helped students who started preschool with emotional problems to thrive in elementary schools across the Triangle.

This week, it welcomes its own inaugural class of first- and second-graders, part of a plan to enroll students through fifth grade by 2015.

The expansion is bittersweet. To make room for the older children, the center will no longer accept children without diagnosed emotional problems, as it has for most of its history.

But it’s one of several changes overseen by director and co-founder Don Rosenblitt in the center’s long history of responding to children’s mental health needs in the Triangle – from adding counseling outside the school day to sharing the center’s expertise with other preschools.

Rosenblitt, 65, says the school is responding to the overwhelming need for its services as school budgets shrink and mental health reform continues to founder.

“We have been feeling more and more that it makes sense for us to devote our expertise and our space to children who are facing emotional challenges,” he says. “What’s available for these children is very limited, and we try to fill that gap.”

Rosenblitt’s mission has long been to help children to live emotionally healthy lives. Over a career as a researcher at Duke University, a psychiatrist in private practice and at the Lucy Daniels Center, he has amassed a wealth of experience in children’s mental health issues.

His passion to put this knowledge to use for children has made him an asset both to the children who attend the center and the wider community, says Kevin Cain, director of the John Rex Endowment, which seeks to improve children’s health in Wake County.

Cain says Rosenblitt, who also serves on the foundation’s board, eschews easy answers in favor of genuine solutions.

“He really pushes deep,” Cain says. “He has this rigorous academic training and background, and he also has this passion about doing things right for kids.”

A therapeutic school

The Lucy Daniels Center preschool uses a “wraparound approach,” in which therapeutic methods are integrated into every part of the school day and beyond. Parents, who pay on a sliding scale, are included as part of the treatment team.

It is particularly effective on young children, whose brains are still capable of drastic and permanent changes. The center has long prided itself on the success of its graduates in public and private elementary schools.

“The power of this approach is that we’re not simply trying to mold behavior,” Rosenblitt says. “There are reasons for the behavior, and without addressing the reasons, you may mold the behavior but you’re left with the problems.”

Rosenblitt first saw this model when he was a student in child psychology at Duke University in the 1970s, when such programs were in vogue across the country. He says school-based therapeutic programs were considered at the time “an extraordinarily potent and effective way of helping children, but unfortunately a very expensive way.”

Budget cuts during the 1980s ended that trend, but Rosenblitt never forgot the impact of such programs on children.

Then Lucy Daniels came along. The well-known author and granddaughter of Josephus Daniels, a longtime owner of The News & Observer, wanted to start a research foundation to study the relationship between mental illness and creativity.

Rosenblitt was called in to help her start that foundation, which now shares the building with the center. In the process, he told her about the therapeutic preschools he had worked in, and she asked him if he’d like to open one.

The school started out with four students in a Baptist church in Morrisville for a year until its current building – with walls of concrete blocks and glass surrounded by trees – was built.

The center now offers therapy and other services as well as the preschool. In all, it works each year with about 700 children up to age 12, making it the Triangle’s largest provider of children’s mental health services.

Rosenblitt sees the elementary school as likely to serve two groups – Lucy Daniels preschool students who might benefit from continuing there, and other students who are not thriving in other schools that are offering increasingly meager mental health services.

The private elementary school will start with about a dozen students and a curriculum similar to that of public schools with a focus on science and technology. The school already offered a transitional kindergarten and preschool for about 20 children as young as 2.

The center will still help children without diagnosed problems in a variety of ways now that they will not be attending the school. Currently, the center is running a grant-funded effort to work with 90 child care centers on social and emotional development.

Cain, whose foundation helped fund the training initiative, says it’s one example of how Rosenblitt has grown the center in thoughtful ways that expanded its reach in the larger community.

“He is working to spread their influence from their campus to raise the bar all over the county,” Cain says.

More than medication

Rosenblitt grew up in a largely Jewish community in Queens, a borough of New York City. His interest in children dealing with adversity stemmed from his own youth, which was dominated by hemophilia. Now a manageable condition, at the time it required frequent, painful blood transfusions that gave only limited relief.

“My personal medical experiences left me sensitive to the need for support,” Rosenblitt says. “I was aware that childhood could have its difficulties and struggles.”

His interest in psychology came when an uncle gave him a book by Sigmund Freud when he was a young teenager. Rosenblitt went to Princeton University planning to be a child psychologist and completed his training at Duke University.

At the time, he says, psychiatry was a more humanistic field than it is today. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and focused his efforts on psychotherapy, which depended on long hours of therapy and relationship building. Each patient was considered a unique case.

“There was an exquisite appreciation of the individuality of a life and of a family unit,” he says.

Over time, as new knowledge of biological processes showed the underpinnings of many psychological afflictions, medication came to rival this kind of therapy as a remedy for many afflictions.

While he has seen an exciting array of discoveries in his career, Rosenblitt is troubled by the focus on medicine over therapy. One of his goals is to combat this tendency at his school by focusing on the whole child instead of specific symptoms.

He calls the center an “oasis,” a throwback to the kind of in-depth, personalized treatment that has lost favor in an age dominated by what he considers shortcuts.

“Nothing will be spared to try to make the biggest possible change that we can in that child’s life,” he says. “This is a rarity in today’s world.”

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